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A Martian Chronicle
08.01.12
 
Contributed By: Jim Babb, a former reporter for a Richmond, Va., TV station. He now runs a public relations consulting business and works with the Virginia FIRST Robotics program.

As NASA prepares for the touchdown of its most ambitious mission to Mars, a member of the Langley team that managed the first successful landing on the Red Planet in 1976 still has his eyes on the heavens and is helping to inspire tomorrow’s space explorers.

Jim Young knows what folks at NASA will be going through when the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission plunges into the Martian atmosphere at more than 13,000 miles per hour in hopes of a safe landing in the early morning hours of August 6th.

Jim Young.
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Jim Young, an 83-year old retired NASA systems engineer, looks back on the Viking Mission with understandable pride. Credit: NASA


Viking lander.
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This image of the Martian "Utopian Plain" was taken by Viking Lander 2 in 1976. The circular structure at top is the high-gain antenna, pointed toward Earth. Viking 2 landed September 3, 1976, some 4600 miles from its twin, Viking 1, which touched down on July 20. Credit: NASA

Young was a member of the NASA Langley Research Center team that managed the first successful landing on Mars 36 years ago.

After nail-biting launches, 11 months in outer space and harrowing rides through the Martian atmosphere, the twin probes of the Viking mission sent back the first useful scientific data from the surface of Mars. And Young vividly remembers the tension surrounding the mission.

"It took 19 minutes for the radio signals to get to Earth before we’d know whether the probes landed safety," says Young. "The suspense was unbelievable, we could barely breathe. Fortunately, I was a lot younger then!"

Today, the 83-year old retired NASA systems engineer looks back on the Viking Mission with understandable pride. "I put ten years of my life into that program. I was at the Cape when they launched and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when they landed. Viking was a thrill of a lifetime," Young added.

Since the dawn of the space era, Mars has been a daunting target. The U.S. and Russia – and more recently Japan and the European Space Agency – have launched nearly 40 missions to Mars since 1960, and more than half of them failed for a variety of technical reasons.

In 1976, as the United States celebrated its bicentennial, NASA’s twin Viking robotic landers became the first man-made craft to land and send back images and data from the Martian surface.

"We've never looked at Mars the same way, since," notes Young, who retired in Hampton after 33 years at Langley. In addition to sending back stunning high-resolution images, the Viking landers dug soil samples from the frozen surface to look for signs of biological activity. Viking found no conclusive signs of life.

Young worked on a team to ensure that the electronic components in the Viking spacecraft could withstand the punishing vibration, vacuum and huge temperature swings that come with space flight. At one point, Young moved his family to Denver to put the landers through additional years of rigorous testing before launch.

"The work was intense, but it paid off," says Young. The Viking spacecraft, originally designed to function for 60-90 days, continued collecting data for more than six years, essentially re-writing the textbook on Mars.

"I understand scientists are still analyzing data sent back from the Viking landers," says Young.



Rebirth in his late 70s:

Jim Young, NASA FIRST.
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In 2005, Jim Young signed on as a volunteer mentor for the "NASA Knights," a FIRST team sponsored by NASA Langley and based at Hampton's New Horizons Regional Education Center.. Credit: Jim Babb

Retired from NASA since 1986, Young has maintained a keen interest in the nation’s space program. And, not surprising for a career engineer, Young was alarmed by studies showing American high school students falling behind their counterparts in other industrialized and even developing nations in science and mathematics.

But meeting a group of teenagers from the Hampton Roads area showed Young he could do more than just fret about the problem. Young’s granddaughter was a member of a the FIRST Robotics Competition Team 122, the aptly-named “NASA Knights,” sponsored by NASA Langley and based at Hampton’s New Horizons Regional Education Center. After attending a team event and watching the teenagers design, build and operate remote controlled robots, Young was hooked.

In 2005, Young signed on as a volunteer mentor for the team and he stayed on even after his granddaughter graduated six years ago. "They couldn’t run me away if they tried," says Young.

Not that the team would ever dream of doing without Young. “He’s an exemplary role model for the students. If I had put an ad in the newspaper to get somebody in this position I couldn’t have picked a better person,” says Joann Talmage, a New Horizons faculty member and team leader of the NASA Knights.

NASA and FIRST are longtime allies in the effort to stimulate America’s intellectual capabilities in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project (RAP) has supported FIRST since l995 and is the program’s largest single participant, granting nearly $1.4 million last year to support FIRST Robotics Competition teams in 37 states.

To learn more about Virginia FIRST, please visit:
http://www.virginiafirst.org/

"We simply couldn’t do what we do without our mentors," adds Talmage. "Students see mentors come in on their own time. And the kids realize the mentors value the work they’re doing, so the work should be important to the kids, too."

A FIRST Robotics team is not just a handful of tech geeks who build and drive a robot. The team is a wide-ranging enterprise that also needs members to perform project management, community relations, fund-raising and marketing roles. “There’s a place for mentors with all kinds of backgrounds,” says Young. “You don’t have to have to be an engineer to make a difference.”

As a team mentor, Young feels tremendous satisfaction of knowing that he’s helping young people learn to love science, solve problems and work as a team. “But it also makes me proud to think that these very students one day may invent life-saving technologies, or build and pilot the next generations of robotic spacecraft,” says Young.

"People who achieve great deeds often acknowledge that they 'stand on the shoulders of giants.' I know I am no giant, but if more of us could join together to give a boost to our young people, think how much they could accomplish…perhaps they might reach all the way to the stars."

To learn more about Langley's role in Mars missions, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/exploration/msl.html

To learn more about the Mars Science Laboratory mission, visit the mission home page at:
http://www.nasa.gov/msl


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